WASHINGTON — In September 2016, when the U.S. Air Force’s new chief of staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein, took the stage at the service’s largest conference, he spoke of the heavy responsibility of leading the service. He said the portraits of former chiefs had eyes that followed him like “a Harry Potter movie,” and he recounted his own experience as a young F-16 pilot in combat for the first time during Desert Storm.
Then he used the speech, like his predecessors had, to lay out his goals for the Air Force.
He wanted to reinvigorate squadrons where pilots had become overloaded with administrative work. He wanted to improve joint operations in the face of emerging Russian and Chinese threats. Perhaps, most ambitiously, he wanted to create a new command-and-control enterprise that would connect the military’s legacy platforms and inject new technologies like data fusion and artificial intelligence.
“What you need to know about me is that I am into evolution, not revolution. I am not coming in with full guns blazing,” Goldfein said then.
For his successor, Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, who will make his first address to the service during the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference this Monday, coming in “guns blazing” might be the only option.
The contrast between the future that Goldfein faced and the one that Brown must now confront is stark. After several years of budget growth, slight increases to the number of active-duty troops in the Air Force and improvements in the readiness of today’s forces, the service is likely heading toward stagnant or decreased budgets that will make further expansion all but impossible.
The service can no longer count on the money necessary to grow the Air Force, Brown wrote in “Accelerate Change or Lose,” an Aug. 31 paper where he outlined his strategy for the service. To win in a future war with Russia and China, the service must shed legacy missions and equipment, and cancel programs that will not help the Air Force counter future threats.
“Likely future budget pressures will require the most difficult force structure decisions in generations. We cannot shy away from these decisions,” Brown wrote, adding that previous decisions “do not deliver the outcomes we need today due to the rapidly-changing elements of the competitions with China and Russia.”
A future war against a near-peer nation won’t be like the wars of the past two decades, Brown warned. “Future warfare will not remain far from our shores,” he wrote, and the service “must be prepared to fight through combat attrition rates and risks to the Nation that are more akin to the World War II era.”
Brown is expected to detail his marching orders to the service Sept. 14. Should the Air Force move too slowly, it will eventually risk mission failure and loss of life, he wrote.
In short: The Air Force must make changes, and quickly, if it stands a chance of winning.
Under Goldfein, the Air Force spearheaded an effort to increase the size of the service from 312 to 386 operational squadrons by 2030 — an attempt to convince Congress to put more money into expanding and modernizing the service.
Goldfein “was there at a time where there was the potential to grow the size of the Air Force,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now … the Air Force has no chance of 386 squadrons. That’s gone. Now, it’s really looking at: how can we make the best of what we have?”
“It’s not about growth,” he added. “It’s about trade-offs.”
A ‘quiet giant’
Brown took command as the Air Force’s 22nd chief of staff on Aug. 6. The ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, took place in front of a P-51 Mustang — a symbolic link between Brown as the U.S. military’s first Black service chief and the iconic Tuskegee Airmen, who flew red-tailed P-51s during World War II as the first Black fighter pilots.
Inside the Pentagon, Brown had been considered a lock for the position for months ahead of his nomination. He had a reputation as a thoughtful but decisive leader, and he held a long list of command positions overseas. As head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command from 2015 to 2016, he was charged with running the air war against the Islamic State group. He then took over as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command and was named to the top job at Pacific Air Forces in 2018.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that has a Rolodex that’s thicker,” Goldfein said of Brown in an interview with Defense News in July. “Not only that, he’s just a brilliant strategic thinker.”
Retired Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the former head of Air Combat Command, has known Brown for roughly 30 years and described him as a humble leader who would take on the hardest tasks. When Brown was the deputy commander of CENTCOM and Carlisle was head of ACC, Carlisle knew “if [Brown] asked for something, it was something he really needed,” he said.
“He’s one of those ‘quiet giant’ kind of guys,” Carlisle said. “He’s not the loud guy in the room. But he’s the guy that when he says something everyone stops and listens to him.”
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson met Brown during his interviews to become the commander of Pacific Air Forces.
“I was always very impressed by him, his thoughtfulness, the depth of his experience,” she said. “In a room with the four stars of the Air Force, he would not be the first one to speak, but when he spoke, other people listened. He was respected.”
Over the past decade, China has emerged as the most advanced threat to U.S. national security. At a time when the Air Force needs to pivot from the fight against terrorist groups to competing against a near-peer nation, Brown’s experience at the helm of Pacific Air Forces — as well as in the Middle East and Europe — make him uniquely qualified to drive changes inside the Air Force. He’s also well set up to establish partnerships with international air forces that are seen as key for deterring Russia and China, agreed Wilson and Carlisle said.
But doing so won’t be easy.
“His challenge is not going to be with the service itself,” Wilson said. “His challenge is going to be more in Washington than it is with the force itself. And he will need allies in doing that, including the Secretary of Defense and the other members of the Joint Chiefs, as well as the secretary of the Air Force.”
Most difficult will be getting members of Congress onboard with any plans to retire legacy aircraft —particularly if there’s not an equivalent replacement on the way. The Air Force has repeatedly tried to shed some of its oldest force structure since the signing of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which mandated across-the-board spending cuts for defense.
The service proposed retiring the A-10 Warthog, the U-2 spyplane and the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, but was rebuffed each time.
More recent efforts in the fiscal 2021 budget to retire some of the Air Force’s oldest B-1 bombers and aging KC-135 and KC-10 tankers have been met with less opposition from lawmakers, but it won’t be clear whether Congress will allow those changes until a final defense policy bill passes.
Most of the lawmakers on the congressional defense committees represent states and districts with military bases that increase employment and help stimulate the local economies. Calls to divest aircraft from a base without replacing them with a new platform is typically seen by Congress as a threat to constituents’ jobs.
According to Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense strategy and budget expert with the American Enterprise Institute, there’s a perception that the Air Force has problems, doesn’t advocate for itself well and doesn’t have “friends on the Hill.”
“[But Brown] is pretty upfront about needing different and better relationships with stakeholders,” Eaglen explained.
The general spent a year building the Air Force’s classified budget as part of its programming arm in the early 2000s, and Carlisle — his boss at the time — recalled Brown’s presentation to Air Force leadership as exceptionally thoughtful and comprehensive.
But Brown has no experience with the high pressure and sometimes combative interrogations with Congress in which Air Force leaders frequently find themselves during budget hearings. If he is looking for allies, he might find them among the young junior members of the House Armed Services Committee, many of which have shown a deep interest in national security matters or have formerly served in the military, said Wilson.
But Brown will need to provide a compelling, logical case to opposing arguments from lawmakers who believe the retirement of legacy aircraft could endanger the Air Force bases in their backyards — and economic boon that comes with those installations, Harrison said.
“If you’re going to ask Congress to make painful changes, to do things to Congress has been loath to do, you’ve got to start by explaining the alternative and give it to them in dire terms,” he said. “If we can’t make some hard choices, if we can’t endure some pain, the alternative is even more painful.”
Bills, bills, bills
Brown will also be responsible for navigating the Air Force through other potential tensions. For one, as the Space Force stands up under the Department of the Air Force, it will require continued advocacy and support.
“The Space Force is, and will continue to be, very small,” Wilson said. “It is structurally and institutionally, not very strong. And over the long term, I think, I worry what happens when it’s no longer the new shiny object and it has to fight for support.”
During Brown’s tenure, the Air Force will have to pay two massive bills: one for nuclear modernization as the B-21 bomber begins flight tests and fielding, and the other as Northrop Grumman continues development of the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.
Lawmakers with ties to the nuclear enterprise may be natural allies of the Air Force in the coming years as it seeks financial support for those programs, Wilson said. It may even be necessary for Congress to create a separate funding account for ICBM and bomber modernization — similar to the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund established to fund the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine — in order to prevent other spending priorities from curtailing their progress.
“The Air Force budget alone cannot sustain the modernization of the nuclear deterrent, that must be done above the Air Force top line,” Wilson said. “There are advocates for continued strong nuclear deterrence in the Congress and more broadly who understand the importance of deterrence. And that alone, that decision to fund the modernization of the nuclear deterrent outside of the Air Force’s budget, is probably strategically one of the most important things that can be accomplished.”
Over the coming years, the Air Force could find itself in competition with the Army for financial resources and key missions like long-range strike, a role that the Air Force has typically accomplished but that the Army increasingly wants to do on its own, Eaglen said.
In the Aug. 31 document, Brown supported the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept that was Goldfein’s major priority, but the Air Force needs to prove that its Advanced Battle Management System program is a technically feasible option for connecting the military’s sensors and shooters, as well as get buy-in from Congress for funding.
“There’s this sense [from the Army] that’s like: ‘Hey, knock yourselves out. If it works, we’ll come on over, you know? But in the meantime, we’re going to develop our own just in case you fail,’ ” Eaglen said. “But that doesn’t work. There isn’t enough money.”
In the document, Brown said he hopes to take “a renewed look at service-assigned roles and missions,” which could mean he will advocate starting a Pentagon-wide review of how the military divides its missions among the service branches.
“Each of the services is going to have to prioritize among their mission areas. And so they need to have a frank discussion around among one another on who’s going to do what,” Harrison said. “That can allow you to make those trade offs.”
Brown won’t be able to win every fight, Carlisle said, but if he cultivates relationships early on and keeps building on his message, he stands a better chance of transforming the Air Force so that the next time a major war happens, it’s ready.
“I think his intent now is to go to the administration, [the Office of the Secretary of Defense], Congress, the American people, the defense industrial base, academia, and go: ‘OK, here’s where we’re at,’ ” Carlisle said. “Here’s what we have to do. You know it. I know it. So let’s stop being parochial and start doing what’s right.”